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A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum

By Idrees M. Kahloon

Vice President Joseph R. Biden visited the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Thursday and had a bitch of a time. And if you read the way most media outlets do, you’d stop here, only retain that choice quote with the choice word, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

In what were billed as “remarks on foreign policy,” the vice president gave a far-reaching and remarkably candid accounting of the various crises du jour: Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the sudden emergence of the ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Despite the maelstrom that global events had become, Biden reassured Americans that “we face no existential threat to our way of life or security,” that the U.S. economy would ensure continued relevance in the 21st century, and this stirring peroration: “Americans will never ever stand down; we endure, we overcome, we own the finish line, so do not take out of proportion this threat.”

But in answering unscripted questions from students—no small matter for an official of his standing—Biden couldn’t pass up the chance to commiserate with Undergraduate Council Vice President Sietse K. Goffard ’15 on the plight of being second-in-command.

“Isn’t it a bitch?” the vice president said.

And all the rest went by the wayside. Politico devoted 145 words of its 243-word write-up of the event to the five-letter utterance—the other hundred recapitulated other popular Biden bloopers. Of course, that’s from an organization that recently ran a piece asking astrologers to predict the future of Chelsea Clinton’s new daughter. But the same went for NBC News, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and USA Today, all of which ran summaries of the single-second quip with no meaningful mention of the hour-length speech preceding it.

I’d even take the usual insipid fare of 2016 presidential race navel-gazing proffered as real news over this less appetizing arrangement of giggles, simpers, and snickers.

That the vice presidency has not been the most beloved office is not new news—it was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” per John Adams, “not worth a bucket of warm piss” to John Nance Garner, and “about as useful as a cow’s fifth teat” to Harry Truman.

But swearing will always be salacious, and salacity will always sell news—I wouldn’t try to break a linkage so robust. But when salaciousness and selling become the end-all-be-alls of news, the crucial function of media—to inform—becomes irredeemably lost to an endless crescendo of vapidity, conspiracy, and inanity.

Biden gave some immensely enlightening answers to his audience: his affirmation that Turkey’s allowance of foreign fighters to cross into Syria led to the formation of ISIL (a fact suspected, but never confirmed, and for which the vice president later had to officially apologize), that our Arab allies’ zeal to oust Assad led to the arming of the very radical fighters we are now targeting, and that our continuing tolerance for some of Saudi Arabia’s most barbaric practices comes from America’s self-interest, which despite being disturbing had the virtue of being the truth.

But instead, the laziest reporting reigns supreme—and what could be easier than selective quotation to fit a preexisting trope instead of faithful recreation of a speech’s purpose and context. It’s a trend that probably applies elsewhere: My own fondness for Bushisms nearly evaporated after the Biden boondoggle.

When I listen to most politicians answer questions, preprogrammed recordings are so clearly replayed that the click is nearly audible. Biden doesn’t fit that description, but his fondness for goofiness doesn’t serve him well in the era of sound bites and ratings-bitten media. Biden is both knowledgeable and humorous—and if a single person can hold those two thoughts simultaneously, there’s no reason the media can’t either.

So the vice president used a naughty word? To quote Biden himself: “BFD.”

Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Dunster House.

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